The terrific Willy Decker’s 2003 staging of Leoš Janáček’s masterpiece Kàt’a Kabanova was successfully revived by Rebekka Stanzel at the Teatro di San Carlo. This emotionally disturbing opera contains many of the themes that were of the highest concern at the beginning of the 20th century's intellectual production: hypocrisy and false moralism in a little town, a tyrannical mother-in-law – with a quasi-Jocasta complex about her son – a failed marriage, alcoholism, adultery and suicide.

The production’s leitmotiv was Káťa’s dream of flying away from her sorrowful life. In the first act, Káťa asks “Why can’t humans fly?”, as she feels trapped in the cage of her small community and oppressed by her husband’s despotic mother, Kabanicha, her only relief being watching the birds in the sky and fantasising of taking flight herself. 

For a short moment, she follows her heart’s desires, cheating on her husband, Tichon, with Boris, who is in turn bullied by his uncle Dikój. But then, remorseful, she confesses her guilt publicly during a violent storm (The Storm is the play by Alexander Ostrovsky on which the opera is based). Eventually, the woman can’t cope with the emotional distress and kills herself by jumping into the Volga, while the music creates an all-pervading, painfully unrelenting tension.

Decker sets the story in the first half of the last century, and the claustrophobic space made of wooden planks and the all-black costumes, both designed by Wolfgang Gussmann, reflect the suffocating atmosphere of the setting. Only sporadically the ceiling opens to reveal a patch of sky.

The singing cast was excellent. In the title role, Czech soprano Pavla Vykopalová was at complete ease: she was really outstanding, alternating longing and passion with depression and anguish. She sang superbly throughout, her stage presence growing more and more as the story unravelled. She was able to express the childish side of Káťa’s personality as well as the disgraced woman who decides to end her own life. Her voice was quite steely in the recitatives, as required by the Czech language prosody according to Janáček's intentions, then she deployed her clear, beautiful sound in the (rare) lyrical passages.

Kabanicha was performed most gorgeously by Gabriela Beňačková, who proved a magnificently captivating vocal actress: her soprano was studiedly shrill and unappealing to emphasize the wickedness of the character. She touched a dramatic peak at the end, when she coldly dismissed the people around her after Káťa’s suicide, her eyes flashing with restrained pleasure. 

As Boris, Magnus Vigilius' tenor matched beautifully Vykopalová’s powerful soprano. A solid singer, he has a sharp, clear full tenor voice, especially in the top notes. Ludovit Ludha as Tichon made a good vocal portrayal of a man burdened by a despotic mother. Varvara was the Ukrainian mezzo Lena Belkina, the one and only character to give positivity and joie de vivre to the story with her mellow lower and middle register. Varvara's lover, Kudrjaš, was sung by Paolo Antognetti with a soft timbre and a strong, confident middle range.

Juraj Valčuha’s conducting was outstanding, as he was completely in control of the music flow, holding together the fragmented phrases and vague harmonic texture of Janacek’s score, interspersed with folkloric Moravian elements to represent the different emotional states of the characters. Valčuha's performance was full of tension and not a detail was lost. Even in the contrast between the melodic passages and the uneven rhythms, the conductor let the music surge in all its fierce beauty, never losing the lyrical essence and the slightest nuances of the score. The orchestra sounded beautiful and the coordination between the stage and the pit was excellent.